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J.D. Doyle is documenting Texas’s gay history—one person at a time.
by Brandon Wolf
Photos by Brandon Wolf
It was a scenario that became all too familiar in the late 1980s and early 1990s in Houston’s gay bars. Patrons, streaming into their favorite Montrose watering holes for Happy Hour, looked for the latest edition of the weekly publication This Week in Texas (TWT).
As they lined up to order drinks, they skimmed through the magazine—and invariably, their fingers went straight to the back of the magazine first, to view the latest obituaries. The disease was moving so rapidly, it was impossible to keep up with the pace. It was commonplace to first discover an acquaintance had AIDS when reading of their recent death.
Starting in 1981, the number of deaths was few. But the toll grew larger and faster each year, until it finally spiked in mid-1995 as retroviral drug combinations began to hold the disease in check. When the death rate plunged, the character of the gay community also changed. With the immediate threat of certain death now gone, indifference set in—along with a desire to forget the emotional agony of the previous 15 years.
But from the safer perspective of nearly two decades on, local LGBT historian J.D. Doyle wanted to look back and remember. He began to pursue this idea in 2012 and soon found the Online Searchable Obituary Database prepared by San Francisco’s Bay Area Reporter (BAR). Doyle found it fascinating.
He decided to take on the task of building such a resource for Texas. “It’s my gift to the Texas gay community,” Doyle says. “I had the time, the equipment, the technical knowledge, and the drive to see it through to completion.
“I wanted the gay community of Texas to have this, because we have lost so many and the records of this history are not readily accessible. There is nowhere that anyone outside of an archive [could go to access these records], and certainly not in any organized way. I felt strongly that this history should be available—not only for researchers, but more importantly for those left behind.”
Testing the concept for a couple of months, Doyle came up with a unique design that offered more than San Francisco’s BAR database. Unlimited information can be displayed about each person in the database that is now online at texasobituaryproject.org. Users can search on more than just names by entering a year, a city, a partner’s name, or a “tag” word such as AIDS, violence, transgender, female, black, Latino, or drag.
Locating the Information
Doyle started his search for information by turning to three member organizations of the Houston Area Rainbow Collective History (ARCH) collaborative—the Botts Collection of LGBT History, Inc., the Charles W. Botts Memorial Research Library of GLBT Studies, and the Gulf Coast Archive and Museum of GLBT History, Inc. Each has a collection of Texas gay publications.
TWT was published from April 1975 to August 2000, and Doyle felt this would be the prime source of information for the database. Because of his credibility as a serious LGBT historian, the archives allowed him to take the magazines to his home. His work area at home allowed room for four boxes at a time.
Because of his interest in gay history, he scanned more than just obituaries—he digitally captured the TWT covers, selected news reports, the “Hot Tea” social news, Pride Month logos and grand marshal information, bar ads that contained announcements of community events, and anything else that seemed relevant.
The Origin of the Obituaries
The obituary section of TWT was not created until June 1983, Doyle discovered. Prior to that, there were only news reports of violent deaths. The first Houston AIDS death was reported as news in March 1982, and other AIDS deaths continued to be featured as news until it was obvious a separate section was needed.
TWT offered a set amount of free space for obituaries each week. This fact alone makes Doyle’s project unique—he has built a resource of information about gay men in Texas—both notable and unnoted. By the end of January 2014, Doyle had completed the massive feat of researching and scanning 25 years of TWT.
He then turned to copies of the Houston Voice. Doyle hopes to track down every Texas gay publication that is still in existence—the Montrose Star, the Texas Triangle, UpFront, and numerous others that had shorter life spans.
The last Voice Doyle found was dated 2003. “The last 10 years is a challenge—a virtual blackout, except for well-known people in the community,” he says.
Doyle has now turned to organizations for copies of past newsletters. Recently he borrowed a four-inch thick obituary scrapbook from activist Johnny Peden. He welcomes obituary information from members of the Texas gay community, especially from the last decade.
The database now contains nearly 5,000 listings. Of that number, 2,000 were AIDS deaths. Houston accounted for 1,000, Dallas another 600. Doyle feels the statistics are low, because he tagged an obituary as AIDS only if it was specifically mentioned.
Doyle maintains two other historical websites—Queer Music Heritage and Houston LGBT History. He has been able to match up information from these sites to many of the people in the database. He has also matched up much of the non-obituary data from TWT and the Voice.
The sheer volume of time and effort expended can stagger the mind. But the result is an incredible resource that is far more than a record of death statistics—Doyle has created a giant book of the living.
What the Project Reveals about Violence
The database has already been put to good use by one of Houston’s LGBT organizations. Volunteers of the Montrose Remembrance Garden, which is dedicated to all Houston-area LGBT residents who died of violence, ran a search of violent deaths in Houston. When the Garden started in 2011, 37 people were identified from Internet sources as victims. The database revealed 46 more.
Alan Everett, a driving force of the Garden, says, “We always thought there were more GLBT victims of violence that we didn’t know about, because the problem of violence has always existed. But the number of additional names we found in the Texas Obituary Project was shocking. We plan to memorialize all of them here at the Garden.”
Statewide, the database shows a total of 100 violent deaths. Tragedy came from a variety of incidents—brutal gay-bashings, jealous ex-lovers, domestic altercations, robberies, and a few bizarre accidents.
Adult-bookstore robberies left five clerks dead. One domestic quarrel ended with a chair smashed over a partner’s head, killing him. Numerous murders were committed by tricks gone wrong. The movie Cruising prompted one man to re-enact a nighttime killing in a wooded park. A botched bondage ritual ended with a young man found dead in a casket in a Pacific Street townhouse.
Some murders attracted notice because of the higher visibility of the victims—an equipment manager for the Houston Astros, two Houston Grand Opera singers, and a past TWT cover man. Other deaths were notable for their pathos—two men robbed and killed on Thanksgiving, a double homicide of senior men in a Conroe cabin, and a 77-year-old man with cancer beaten to death by four hustlers. Justice can also take strange forms—after murdering his partner and setting his house on fire, the murderer died the next day after being hit by a train.
A Healing Force
Sonja Martin, a young woman in Alabama, knew she had a gay uncle named Terry Smith, who worked at Mary’s and died of AIDS. Now grown, she began searching for her “lost uncle.” Two pictures of him emerged from the database. Martin posted them on her Facebook page, and wrote, “This is the uncle I never got to know. Isn’t he handsome?”
Bonita Hammerton Oreilly is the sister of Thom Hammerton, who was murdered in 1989 on a Montrose street by a homophobic skinhead. When she found a touching obituary she had never seen, written by her brother’s friends, she said in a Facebook posting, “God bless you….I sit here in tears.”
Doyle notes that most of the obituaries are unique, because they were written by friends and partners—and reflect people’s lives more accurately. Obituaries written by families usually filtered out the gay aspects. “The database is meant to be very personal,” he says.
Searching for Randy Ruhlman, an extremely talented graphic artist who died in 1985, one finds not only his obituary, but also a TWT cover story about him and an interview. There are also samples of his creative work, including a Pride Month theme logo.
A search for the late master florist Leonard Tharp brings up a page with a picture of his book An American Style of Flower Arrangement, plus numerous newspaper articles about his colorful career. Former Houston GLBT Political Caucus president Steve Shiflett’s page in the database includes a wealth of information about his years as a pivotal political figure in the community.
Doyle sees the database as an organic and constantly growing resource as it becomes more familiar to the Texas LGBT community. Undoubtedly, it is the most comprehensive historical resource of Texas gay life in existence. For a community whose history is extremely fragile, it’s a fascinating look back from whence we’ve come.
J.D. Doyle is a current nominee for 2014 Houston Pride Male Grand Marshal.